By Nick Patterson Herald Writer
Coach: Mike Johnston (third season)
Last season: 44-25-2-1, fourth in U.S. Division, eliminated in second round of playoffs.
Key losses: C Chris Francis (26 goals, 56 assists), the team’s leading scorer, and D Eric Doyle (six goals, 31 assists) graduated. D Luca Sbisa (four goals, 14 assists) is off to the professional ranks.
Key returners: The line of C Ryan Johansen (25 goals, 44 assists), LW Brad Ross (27 goals, 41 assists, 203 penalty minutes) and LW Nino Niederreiter (36 goals, 24 assists) is back intact as 18-year-olds, though Swiss star Niederreiter is a candidate to stick with the NHL’s New York Islanders. If Niederreiter returns, that may be the best line in the league. 20-year-old RW Luke Walker (27 goals, 30 assists), another candidate to play in the professional ranks, is a strong all-around player. 17-year-old RW Ty Rattie (17 goals, 20 assists) is a breakout candidate. 19-year-old D Brett Ponich (one goal, 13 assists) is a solid stay-at-home defender, while 18-year-old D Troy Rutkowski (12 goals, 31 assists) provides offense from the blue line. 18-year-old G Mac Carruth (14-9-1-0, 3.41 goals against average, .893 save percentage) steps into his first full season as the No. 1.
Key newcomers: 16-year-old D Derrick Pouliot was the first-overall pick in the 2009 bantam draft. 18-year-old C Teal Burns is coming off a nice season in the BCHL. 18-year-old left wing Sven Bartschi gives the Winterhawks two dangerous forwards from Switzerland.
Outlook: Portland is the preseason favorite for the league title and a berth in the Memorial Cup. The Winterhawks are loaded up front, so much so that even if Portland lose both Niederreiter and Walker to the pros the Winterhawks will still be an offensive juggernaut. Portland also has a nice mix of experience and skill on the blue line, and the Winterhawks have size all over the ice. The key for Portland is in goal, where Carruth is unproven. If Carruth can provide even passable goaltending, the Winterhawks could lap the field.
Coach: Rob Sumner (seventh season)
Last season: 19-41-7-5, fifth in U.S. Division, missed playoffs.
Key losses: LW Prab Rai (41 goals, 28 assists) was Seattle’s main source of offense last season, and Jeremy Schappert (10 goals, 38 assists) was the T-birds’ top option on the blue line. Both graduated along with center and captain Lindsay Nielsen (11 goals, 23 assists).
Key returners: For Seattle it all begins and ends with 18-year-old G Calvin Pickard (16-34-7-5, 3.09 goals against average, .914 save percentage), who may be the league’s premier netminder. With Rai gone, the T-birds need speedy 19-year-old C Charles Wells (21 goals, 34 assists), heavy-shooting 19-year-old right wing Burke Gallimore (19 goals, 16 assists) and 18-year-old center Brendan Rouse (six goals, 20 assists) to step up their production. 17-year-old center Colin Jacobs (13 goals, 13 assists) has the talent to be as good as he wants to be. 20-year-old D Brenden Dillon (six goals, 20 assists) will be asked to take over as the leader of the defense.
Key newcomers: 16-year-old RW Branden Troock, the team’s first-round pick in the 2009 bantam draft, provides much-needed offensive ability. The T-birds have two new European players in 18-year-old German RW Marcel Noebels and 18-year-old Swiss defenseman Dave Sutter. 20-year-old LW Travis Toomey, acquired from Saskatoon, adds size and toughness.
Outlook: Seattle missed out on the playoffs by some margin last season, and the T-birds have some work to do if they’re to return to the playoffs this season. Seattle has plenty of size, particularly on defense, and the T-birds have some hard-working forwards. However, the overall talent level isn’t comparable to the top teams in the division. The wild card for Seattle is that the T-birds had two open overage roster slots. Toomey took one, and filling the other with an impact player could help Seattle’s fortunes greatly.
Coach: Don Nachbaur (first season)
Last season: 45-22-3-2, third in U.S. Division, eliminated in first round of playoffs.
Key losses: Spokane had one of the league’s best offensive duos in C Mitch Wahl (30 goals, 66 assists) and LW Kyle Beach (52 goals, 34 assists). Those two are off to the pro ranks along with D Stefan Ulmer (eight goals, 33 assists), who returned to Europe. Steady D Jared Spurgeon (eight goals, 43 assists) graduated.
Key returners: Spokane has one of the best overage trios in the league in C Tyler Johnson (36 goals, 35 assists), LW Levko Koper (27 goals, 27 assists) and G James Reid (38-16-3-2, 2.41 goals against average, .920 save percentage). Those three provide a solid foundation. 19-year-old D Jared Cowen (eight goals, 22 assists) may earn a roster spot with the NHL’s Ottawa Senators. If he doesn’t, he gives the Chiefs a defensive dominator now that he’s a year removed from knee reconstruction. 18-year-old RW Blake Gal (11 goals, 25 assists) and 19-year-old C Kenton Miller (12 goals, 20 assists) will be asked to increase their offensive production.
Key newcomers: The Chiefs, needing to fill out a depleted defense, acquired 18-year-old D Bruin McDonald (three goals, seven assists) from Prince George. 18-year-old D Tyler Vanscourt and 16-year-old D Reid Gow should also help. The team’s newest import, 17-year-old Czech LW Marek Kalus, is the younger brother of former Regina standout Petr Kalus.
Outlook: After three seasons as one of the best teams in the Western Conference, the Chiefs appear to be heading into a rebuilding phase. The presence of the overagers should help soften the descent. And in new coach Don Nachbaur, who replaced the fired Hardy Sauter after spending a season coaching the American Hockey League’s Binghampton Senators, the Chiefs have a presence behind the bench who’s had success in the WHL. If Cowen comes back Spokane should be able to hold its own.
Coach: Jim Hiller (second season)
Last season: 47-22-1-2, first in U.S. Division, eliminated in WHL finals.
Key losses: The Americans took a big hit at the back with the graduation of D Brett Plouffe (six goals, 28 assists) and D Jarrett Toll (six goals, 19 assists), as well as the retirement of D Eric Mestery (three goals, 10 assists). Also graduating was sparkplug C Johnny Lazo (39 goals, 32 assists).
Key returners: Tri-City has three point-per-game performers returning in 19-year-old C Brendan Shinnimin (27 goals, 55 assists), 18-year-old LW Justin Feser (36 goals, 37 assists) and 18-year-old RW Brooks Macek (21 goals, 52 assists). Two more who are capable of reaching that status are 19-year-old LW Adam Hughesman (18 goals, 46 assists) and 20-year-old C Kruise Reddick (20 goals, 36 assists). 20-year-old D Tyler Schmidt (seven goals, 31 assists) is one of the division’s hardest-nosed players. 19-year-old G Drew Owsley (33-11-1-1, 2.51 goals against average, .918 save percentage) is undersized, but makes up for it with quickness and a good glove.
Key newcomers: The American hope to have shored up their blue line with the addition of 17-year-old D Nikita Nesterov and 18-year-old D Nikita Kardashev, both from Russia. 16-year-old C Connor Rankin adds to an already potent offense.
Outlook: After a long stretch of futility, Tri-City has become the team to beat in the U.S. Division, winning the past three division titles. Portland will be tough to top, but the Americans have a shot at making it four straight. Tri-City was the highest-scoring team in the Western Conference last season, and the Americans have almost all of that offense back this season. Owsley gives Tri-City a quality goaltender. If the Americans can get their defense sorted out they’ll be a contender for the Conference’s top spot.